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mark smith from scotland

Safe harbours

In last month’s column I considered the nature of expertise. This month I offer a few thoughts on the nature of professionalism. I notice that the latest edition of Relational Child and Youth Care Practice has a couple of pieces on personal/professional boundaries and, not having seen a copy yet, I’ll restrict myself to a particular take on the topic.

The prompt for the observations I make comes from an article I read in an education journal. It questioned whether, in the moral panic that grips us over child protection, teaching is becoming too dangerous an occupation, especially for males. The premise of the article is that this panic has brought about a realignment of what it is to be professional. Essentially, being ‘professional’ becomes about not getting yourself into situations where you might be compromised or have allegations made against you. It’s about not finding yourself alone with a kid, not showing any physical or emotional signs of affection.

Operating from such procedurally driven and back-covering conceptions of professionalism is in actual fact a distortion of proper professionalism. It becomes a matter of doing things right – going by the book – rather that doing the right thing. Those who define their professional identities by doing things right aren’t professionals – they’re technicians. They think that there’s a manual out there that if we just followed it child and youth care would be easy. (Of course they’re encouraged to think this way by training and qualifications frameworks that would reduce the job to a series of discrete and unrelated tasks). We’ve probably all seen technicians in practice settings. They want to refer kids onto the next specialist in the system. And when their own interventions don’t go the way they think they should they get annoyed at the kid or they blame management for not supporting them for their textbook practice. At their worst, they’re the ‘jaggy bush’ type individuals that deter people from getting close to them at all.

Not that technicians don’t have their place. When I want my car serviced, I’m generally happy enough to entrust it to a technician. However, when I want kids cared for, I’d far rather put that into the hands of a professional. True professionals have a ‘feel’ for the job. They know that it’s not clear-cut. It involves a whole range of value conflicts and interventions that might work for one kid in a particular set of circumstances but not for another. Proper professionals are troubled by doubt and by knowing how much they don’t know. They operate in what Donald Schon calls ‘the swamplands’, where knowledge and practice can be messy and muddy.

The professional swamplands of child and youth care professionals are particularly muddy. To navigate them effectively we need to get our hands dirty. The professional task isn’t about processing kids through a variety of different systems; its about helping them to change their lives for the better, through the intimacy of our own relationships with them. We can’t do that from a distance. We need to get up close, hanging out and hanging in with them, as Thom Garfat puts it. Getting close does require that we have a moral compass to guide our interventions to ensure that they are driven by the needs of those we work with rather than by our own needs. Negotiating and maintaining those boundaries is where true professionalism comes in. Definitions of professionalism that are about keeping ourselves safe and avoiding allegations aren’t really professional at all. And I’m not sure that they even keep workers safe. Allegations and avoiding them involves more than making sure we keep bedroom doors open or don’t put our arms around kids. Ultimately this involves us confronting our own demons, individually and as a society. But that’s for another day and another column.

I’ll finish with the words I remember from one of these posters you see around in places like social and moral education classrooms. It was a picture of a ship in a harbour and it said something along the lines of “A ship in a harbour is safe; but that’s not what ships are made for.” Likewise, as professionals, we need (to mix metaphors) to go out into the choppy seas.